I Got Spirit, How 'Bout You?!

This year was my first nationals season since 2014, thanks to the addition of two little people in my life. I will admit to you, but not to myself, that I was nervous about returning to the sport and how I'd fare in the ‘new’ era of fast-paced women's ultimate.

Well, I can't unequivocally comment if it really was that fast or I really was that slow (I suspect mainly the latter). But what was ‘new’ was my strong impression that, in just five short years, our game is no longer underpinned by the Spirit of the Game (SOTG) but ruled by it. With an iron fist and a fake smile.

In the good old days (and yes I'm cognisant that starting a paragraph this way is a sure way to undermine your argument), you had ONE captain, you played hard on the field, you called out your teammates when they made a bad call. You knew enough of the rules (being confident in the inherent fairness and logic etched into the laws of the game) that if you didn't know the specific rule you could work it out at any rate (or ask the Rachel Grindlay of your team). You simultaneously hated and respected your opponent, knowing there'd be a hug and a G&T out of a Nalgene after the game. They were also the days when you'd pull out the paper, yes paper, scoresheet, grab the nearest teammate walking by and say "Spirit, what do you reckon? 8/10?".

Now, it would be a nostalgic fallacy to say that everyone played with good spirit back then. There were no doubt systemic cultural issues around Spirit in Australia. I played on teams and even participated in poor-spirited actions myself; everything from (always witty but) unwarranted commentary from the sideline on dubious calls, through to deliberately fouling a 'weak-minded' player early in a game to get in their head. There was a good reason that the lowest finishing teams always won spirit, because the top teams could be brutal on their quest for victory. Competitiveness could trump fair-mindedness.

But here's the thing. I would argue that despite some failings back in the Bronze Age, spirit was always valued as the undercurrent, rhythmic heartbeat of our game. And now? Now it feels to me less of a heartbeat than the loud drum beat that we, the galley slaves must keep in time with as we sail toward spirit perfection.

And what have we turned to in order to achieve this quest for an ever perfected spirit? We have turned to external structures. SOTG Tournament directors, spirit captains on each team, a SOTG score sheet and pre-spirit spirit circles.

Now, I'm not advocating that all of these structures be dismantled, nor am I arguing that they don't have a role to play. But I would argue that the role they are currently playing is ironically to the detriment of spirit.

Manly Ultimate - 2nd place in the Womens division at AUC 2019

Our sport is incredible. Coming to ultimate from a tennis and basketball background I will admit in the early years to omitting or mumbling to an interested enquirer that ultimate had no refs. I found it an embarrassing admission which would often destroy any credibility I'd managed to build up in my description of our sport. But the more I thought about and experienced this unique game, refereed by the players, particularly at the top levels, the more I waited for and seized on those critical looks by the listener so as to launch into a passionate defense of our sport that celebrated the absence of referees, and the central role of spirit.

I think it's worthwhile here to pause and re-prosecute what the great transgressions of spirit are that we should be worried about. In a word, it's cheating. Deliberate fouls, false calls (up, down, in, out, foul), pulling jerseys, overly aggressive and dangerous plays, and verbal abuse. In a game, Australia vs Colombia at Worlds in 2012. Where cheating is prevalent, those external structures have a very important role to fulfill.

But now, a small issue in a spirited game, like one younger player wrapping on the mark (based on a true story from Nationals this year), becomes something which the whole team must discuss, that involves spirit captains, that dominates spirit circle discussions and causes introspection from both sides. Have we lost our minds?

My first advice to spirit captains would be, shhhh. You should be like a sky marshal. Aboard every flight with gun holstered but covert, ready only to step in when shit gets real. Not bringing the heat on a kid who kicks the back of the seat. Let the family sort that out.

My second piece of advice would be to please, please kill off the pre-spirit spirit circle where players, morals, calls, actions and games are analysed to within an inch of their life. Take it from a captain who can probably lay claim to writing down the only zero spirit score in World Ultimate Championship history; it's best to evaluate the spirit of a game once your immediate emotional response has cleared (I probably would have given them a three).

And the spirit score sheets? Well, I'll give them one thing, they do broaden the mind of every ultimate player to what actually encompasses spirit. Only to narrow those same minds by giving airtime to prolonged debates over whether not knowing rule 2.3.1 says, warrants deducting zero, one or two points from the rules, knowledge and use section.

Proponents may assert that the aforementioned external structures are responsible for removing those small pockets of decidedly unspirited play from the game in Australia. But I sometimes think the generic out-of-10 gut response probably gave rise to more accurate spirit results and less self-righteousness.

I know that spirit encompasses much more than just 'not cheating' but my argument would be that those broader aspects of spirit need to be engendered and encouraged but not policed. I know one season constitutes a very small sample size but I'm concerned that we're producing here in Australia a very narky, grace-less brand of ultimate.

The 2012 Firetails

Now if I've got any friends left in ultimate by this point in the article I'm sure I'll lose them now. Because I'll put it to you that not only are we redefining what 'bad' spirit is but we're also rewriting what good spirit is. And in the women's game? The spirit currency of choice is high fiving and synchronized hand signals.

Good spirit apparently now includes high fiving everyone in sight, teammates and opposition whether you were on the field or not, whether you won the point or not, whether you did something amazing, stuffed up or frankly did nothing at all. I'm sorry but I don't want to high five you when we've been standing on the sidelines and your team just won the point, I don't even really want to high five you when I've just thrown a goal and I certainly don't want to high five you when I just got schooled on defense and you scored on me.

I don't want to high five you. I want to beat you. Let's not confuse being nice to our opposition with being spirited. We will pay for it on the international stage. I worry that 'intensity', 'competitiveness' and 'aggression' are more and more being equated with bad spirit. Or conversely a lack of 'niceness' is being interpreted as a lack of good spirit. I still believe you can be intense and competitive to the core but also fair-minded and respectful. In fact, THAT is what the very definition of good spirit at the top levels should be.

I don't know what most players think of this current era and the role of spirit, or if it's the same in the open and mixed divisions. I realise I'm in very grave danger of being likened to the middle-aged guy at work who gets all worked up because he can't call the receptionist 'girly' anymore or branded as that crazy aunt at the relo bash from a bygone era. But geez I loved that era (and not just because I was fractionally faster).

I'm writing this article because this season it felt at times decidedly un-fun to play. I want that rhythmic heartbeat back. And if this is the "new" ultimate, I'm not sure that I can in good conscience continue my passionate defense of the role of spirit in the game. I may yet again cowardly stoop to omitting or mumbling that this beautiful sport has no refs.